MISSOULA A group of conservation organizations have signaled plans to sue if the state of Montana breaks the law and withdraws mining permits for the Montanore and Rock Creek mines in northwestern Montana.
On behalf of six Montana conservation groups, Earthjustice attorneys sent a letter to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington, advising him that the department was in violation of state law on metal mining recovery because he had recently withdrawn from enforcing bad actor provisions against Hecla Mining Company President, CEO and Director Phillips S. Baker Jr.
In 2018, DEQ recognized that Baker met the qualifications of a bad actor because he was the CFO of Pegasus Gold Incorporated from 1994 to 1998. By the 1970s, Pegasus Gold operated three gold leach mines in Cyanide Pile in Montana: The Zortman Landusky Mine near the Fort Belknap Preserve, the Basin Creek Mine near Helena, and the Beal Mountain Mine near Butte.
After Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy in 1998, the company walked away, leaving little money to reclaim the mines, so it landed on the shoulders of the citizens of Montana.
The 2001 Montana legislature recognized the onus and added the bad actor provisions, requiring that any mining company or business owner who failed in their cleanup responsibilities could not receive subsequent Montana mining permits. . Baker was a leader of Pegasus Gold. Now that he is an executive at Helca, his company is prohibited by law from receiving state permits.
Earthjustice’s letter says that if the DEQ does not withdraw the mining permits issued to Helcas two proposed mines, the Montanore and Rock Creek mines in the Cabinet Mountains, conservation groups will take legal action to force the state to follow suit. law.
Groups include Earthworks, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance, Save Our Cabinets, Clark Fork Coalition, and the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund.
The Pegasus entities led by Mr. Baker have left the state of Montana and its federal partners with crushing financial responsibilities for several large-scale mines across the state and a devastating pollution burden that will be borne by the Montanes for decades. generations. The weight of Mr. Bakers’ legacy of toxic mining pollution is borne disproportionately by the tribes of Fort Belknap, Gros Ventres and Assiniboine. In light of this story, DEQ’s permissions for Mr. Bakers’ current company, Hecla, to profit from the development of a new mine in Montana would violate state law and constitute a great injustice, the letter said.
In 2018, the groups, as well as the Indian community of Fort Belknap, urged DEQ to enforce the bad actor provisions shortly after Hecla bought both mines in 2016 and Baker relaunched efforts to develop the Rock Creek and Montanore mines. DEQ then filed claims against Baker, Hecla and its subsidiaries, and asked the court to declare Baker excluded from mining and mineral exploration in Montana.
Then in May, District Court Judge Mike Menahan ruled that DEQ has the power to enforce the Bad Actors Act against Baker and his Idaho-based company, paving the way for the DEQ to make a decision. But after three years of legal action, DEQ suddenly abandoned the effort in mid-July. Dorrington issued a statement justifying the action, saying that it seems highly unlikely that the case will result in a refund.
Under the bad actor provisions, the only way a person like Baker can get a mining license is for the person or company to pay DEQ for the reclamation of the previous mine site, in this case, the Zortman Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain sites, plus all penalties and interest accrued since the closure of these mines in 1998.
This is the refund that Dorrington was referring to.
The law says that if there is no refund, there should be no license. But in its case of dismissal, DEQ did not say anything about the taking of coercive measures, that is to say the refusal of the permits. Instead, DEQ said the main reason he stepped down was the change in the governor’s administration and political priorities, according to court documents.
Governor Greg Gianforte spoke favorably of Hecla and hosted a 2020 campaign event at Heclas’ offices in Libby. During that event, he criticized state and federal officials for the length of time it took for the two mines to be cleared, according to the Montana Free Press.
Conservation groups argue that political priorities should not trump law. The DEQ should therefore fulfill its obligations regardless of who is elected governor of the state of Montana.
DEQ has 120 days to respond before a lawsuit is filed.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at [email protected]
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